POTUS on Net Neutrality: Treat Internet as a utility

  • Yesterday President Barack Obama released a statement on the future of the Internet. In a written statement and accompanying 2-minute video, Obama outlined an approach to Internet policy that supports net neutrality provisions and suggests reclassifying the Internet as a utility. It’s an encouraging show of support for net neutrality advocates, but as Obama makes clear in the statement, it is ultimately up to the FCC as an independent regulatory agency to decide the future of Internet regulation. From Don Reisinger and Roger Cheng’s CNET writeup:

Obama wades into a contentious debate that has raged over how to treat Internet traffic, which has only heated up as the FCC works to prepare an official guideline. Those rules were expected to be made available later this year, though reports now claim they may be delayed until early 2015. The debate has centered on whether broadband should be placed under Title II regulation under the Telecommunications Act, which already tightly controls phone services.

Proponents believes Title II regulation would ensure the free and fair flow of traffic across the Internet. Opponents, however, believe the onerous rules would limit investment in the infrastructure and new services, and that toll roads of sorts would provide better service to companies that can support their higher traffic volumes. That has created widespread concern that ISPs could throttle service in some instance, intentionally slowing down some content streams and speeding up others.

In a statement outlining what he’d like internet service to look like, Obama highlights four major points: internet providers wouldn’t be allowed to block websites offering legal content, they wouldn’t be allowed to intentionally slow down or speed up certain websites or services based on their own preferences, and they wouldn’t be able to offer paid fast lanes. Obama also asks that the FCC investigate and potentially apply net neutrality rules to the interconnect points that sit between service providers, like Comcast and Verizon, and content providers, like Netflix. That’s potentially huge news for Netflix, which has been arguing that this area of the internet should be covered by net neutrality all year.

Obama also asks that the commission apply these rules to mobile internet service. That would be a significant change as well, as mobile service hasn’t previously been subject to the same net neutrality rules that wired connections have been. That said, Obama does leave a significant amount of room for exceptions in the wireless space, potentially allowing some amount of throttling so that providers can manage their networks when under heavy use. Notably, his proposal also asks the FCC not to enforce rate regulations on internet service.

The president said broadband service was “of the same importance, and must carry the same obligations” as services such as the telephone network, and asked the FCC to classify it as such. For proponents of net neutrality in Britain and elsewhere, having such a powerful supporter to point to is important.

It also bolsters the case for considering internet access as a right that should be safeguarded by government, something suggested by Britain’s Labour Digital group, which proposed that “government should assess the viability of providing free basic internet access to all citizens, possibly as a requirement for participation in 5G auctions, or targeted at children eligible for free school meals”.

If money is speech, then the poor have the softest voices. A deregulated Internet extends this logic, and cultural logic is what is at stake. The maintenance of net neutrality would exist in tension with the SCOTUS election campaign decision, maintaining a battleground on which the speech-money relationship remains fraught. Net non-neutrality, in whatever form, would combine with the SCOTUS decision, tipping the cultural scales in a sharply capitalistic direction; A direction in which the economic system drives the political system, and rights are things to be earned, bought, and sold.

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